Saturday, March 1, 2014

Skill-Automaticity "Down to the Bone!"

Down to the 'Bone'...

I'd hoped to post this Secret Session sooner given the response following my previous Secret Sessions post, but I do have a very good excuse!

Around Thanksgiving time, I had been contacted by an organization called Be The Match.  It is a world-wide registry of potential bone marrow donors to which my DNA sample was added when I'd donated blood several years back. They informed me that I was a possible genetic match for a 21 year old male who'd been diagnosed with Stage 4 Acute Lymphoblastic Lymphoma, and they asked if I were willing to undergo further testing to confirm.  

I'd been contacted a few years prior with a request for more testing and then had never heard anything back, so I assumed this outcome would be similar.  The difference being that this time, I was away at a conference when the request came, and they needed the testing done pronto! 

They'd agreed to FedEx to the conference location everything needed, with instructions that I take it to a local blood draw center there, and then FedEx it back to them the same day.  You can only imagine the looks I received from the nurses when I walked into the center with a big box and asked them to put my blood into it and then give it back to me... LoL! 

Freaked out animated gif on Giphy

Fast-forward to Christmas and I get a call confirming that I'm a match! After some additional (and pretty thorough medical testing) and a hundred more vials of blood (okay, ten) later, they set the date.   
Next up... a 5-day series of Filgrastim shots to boost my body's stem cell production in preparation for collection.  It was around this time that things were getting very real for my 21 year old recipient.  With the collection procedure just one week away, he'd been undergoing extraordinarily large doses of chemo to kill off what was left of his immune system so that it wouldn't attack my transplanted cells when they entered his system.  If anything were to have happened to me during that time, he wouldn't have been able to get the transplant and would have died within days.

Needless to say I tried VERY HARD not to be my typical clumsy-self (am a terrible klutz) and was very careful during this time!

When the big day finally arrived, everything went off without a hitch! The procedure itself was very easy, practically painless, and nothing like I thought, which is why I wanted to share it here and let everyone how simple it really is!  
If you would like to be added to the registry, it's as easy as logging onto the Be The Match website and requesting a 'cheek-swab' test kit (free for those under 45) or just donating blood at you local Red Cross and then checking that extra box that says "BeTheMatch!

be the match
 An adorable little Be The Match recipient!
With the likelihood of genetically matching someone close enough to actually donate being just 3%, most of those registered are never called upon to actually donate.  However, if you happen to be a 'genetic-mutt' like me (I'm English, Lebanese, German & Egyptian) you might just be the only person to match a person in need!  The more people on the registry, the more lives potentially saved... it's that simple.  If you'd like to learn more (and maybe "swab your team" at your next grade level meeting!) please visit or call

Building Deeper Skill-Ownership for Skill-Automaticity

As teachers, we recognize the importance of building-up learners' skill-automaticity for quick retrieval and application of skills for a given task. No where is a deeper level of skill-ownership more crucial than with the critical phonics skills needed to read and write.  We read for meaning and write for a purpose.  To do this, learners phonemic awareness must be owned "deep in the gut" and not just a 'surface-skill.'  Without this deeper level of ownership, learner focus cannot shift from the 'words on the page' (whether written or read) to the meaning behind them.

To this end, I've posted some fun musical 'brain-teaser' exercises that can be applied to all levels of phonemic mastery- from individual letters and sounds (which I will talk more about next time) to complex phonics patterns (or "SECRETS!"), all of which are designed to prompt learners to "twist, turn, flip, and flop" what they think they know and instead be sure that they KNOW  they know it!

Click HERE to watch!
In the meantime,  I hope you will check out and enjoy these fun (and challenging!) 
musical exercises designed to build-up skill automaticity by mimicking the decoding 
and encoding processes, as learners rapidly transition from sound-to-symbol (encoding/writing) 
and symbol-to-sound (decoding/reading).

By manipulating letter sounds and phonics patterns at a rapid rate and using music as a backdrop,
learners are kept in a constant 'Flow State' (a.k.a. "Optimal Learning Mode") 
in which the bar is kept high, while the stress level remains low!  

For more musical skill exercises- SECRET STORIES-style,  
subscribe free to the SECRET VLOG on YouTube!
Click HERE for the Secret Stories "Letter Runs!"
Click HERE for the "AR-Secret" on Pinterest!
              Click HERE for the Secret Stories "Beethoven Blends!"

                     Click HERE for the "Beethoven Blends" Poster & Manipulative Pack on TpT!     



And coming up in the next Secret Session....
I'll share how to teach the individual letters and sound in the short time-frame of just 'two-weeks to two-months' using 'motor/ muscle memory' (mentioned in previous post, HERE) while simultaneously hearing "SECRETS" (as they come up) about why sometimes, letters don't make the sounds that they should!

(Here's a short sample)
You can't be a Morse-Code Operator on a battle ship- responsible for both sending and receiving messages- if you don't know the code!  Yet, in Kindergarten, students persevere through daily reading and writing activities for the better part of the year, often knowing just a handful of individual alphabet letters and sounds (i.e. the "code") and virtually NO phonics patterns.  It doesn't have to be this way, as this is the very definition of what it means to be "working harder, and not smarter!" .....and I'm not just talking about the students, but teachers too!

 So until next time,

PS  All those posting comments or questions in any one of the "Secret Session" posts will be automatically entered for that month's drawing to win a FREE Secret Stories 'Fun & Funky' Classroom/ Teacher Kitso don't be shy!  Ask questions or share your experiences and join in the conversation!!!  (*Those subscribed to Katie's Secret Stories Blog will be entered automatically for each month's drawing.)
Secret Stories 'Fun & Funky' Classroom Kit


  1. Katie, first of all I applaud you for being a bone marrow donor. Knowing that you have changed that young man's life must be an awesome feeling for both of you.

    As for the brain-teasers, I can't wait to try them out with some struggling readers I'm working with now. They love your Secret Stories. For the first time, these struggling 3rd, 4th and 5th graders can finally remember the phonics rules. Thank you for sharing. Can't wait to read what you share next with us.
  2. Dear Barb,
    I LOVE hearing about use of the "Secrets" with upper/ intermediate grade learners.... so often the "Secrets" are immediately embraced by pre-K through 2nd, with 3rd-5th standing off to the side, hesitant to work on automaticity of skill, and preferring instead to focus solely on comprehension instead. What's so easy to miss is that without comprehensive 'gut-level' deep skill ownership of these critical skills, learner focus will be forever 'stuck' between the primary task of "learning to read" and ultimate objective of "reading to learn!" Thank you for sharing the "Secrets" and 'plugging those holes' in upper grade learners!!! And as for the bone marrow, Deanna and I spoke about posting the info here and our hope is that everyone reading this, after seeing how EASY the donation process is now compared to the way it used to be, will want to run out and join the registry. Just imagine how awesome it would be if even one match were to come from someone reading this making that choice!! :)
  3. I am so addicted to these blog posts, Katie, as well as your Vlog videos! I am really hoping to implement all of the little pieces I've gleaned from you in the next school year; I even spent some time over the winter break creating an alphabet poster that will be more efficient for the letter runs & Better-Alphabet song!! This is just wonderful information!! PLEASE keep it coming!!:D


    1. Dear Amber,
      That's so great to know! I love using the available brain science to question traditional methods of instruction and attempt to dissect the reasons for why we do what we do as teachers.

      Nowadays, the youngest students are expected to just "jump into" reading and writing activities without any tools to do so! The result is almost total reliance on memorization.... as much as possible so that learners have something/ anything bring to the table with which to read or write!

      Memorizing whole words often takes the place of learning, thinking, and building upon these skill from the ground-up.... so as to be able to take them apart and rebuild them into something else! This is where the REAL fun is... and this ability provides the foundation for authentic reading and writing to occur and expand through the grade levels.

      By connecting letter sounds with phonemic patterns in explanation, it becomes possible to provide logical connections for understanding WHY the letters "do what they do," and, when they're aren't, then why not.

      This is vastly different from telling learners, "It just is... it just does.... you just have to remember...." and therein lies the "180 degree difference" between traditional literacy skill-instruction and teaching them with the brain-in-mind!

      Critical analysis, deductive reasoning and diagnostic-thinking are all in constant play when teaching with the brain-in-mind and using the existing daily instruction and curriculum to naturally driving learner-need, and thus prompt introduction/ discussion of a new "secret/ phonics skill." This makes SO much more sense than introducing what is supposed to be a "cohesive code" randomly across four grade levels- artificially split-apart and taught 'piece-meal' from pre-K to second grade!

      So much better to treat them instead as the most secret of "tasty treats" which learners BEG for, and are set out on a "buffet" to which all learners have easy and equal access to 'graze-on' (apply) as they desired (ready)!!

      PS I've actually been getting SO MANY questions about the vertical alphabet train that I refer to in my VLOG ( as per it being more conducive to the rapid singing of the "Better Alphabet Song" backwards, forwards, etc... that I'm actually creating a "Secret Stories" version of one that will have the components I mentioned in the VLOG, plus the Secret Stories graphics for the short and long vowel sound options ('super hero' and 'short & lazy').... plus of course, Sneaky Y! It will only really work well for those who already have the Secret Stories Classroom Kit, as the stories for the graphics won't be written out, but it will be an ideal 'core' resource for those teachers/ students already using them. I hope to have it up on TpT within a week or so... but congrats on taking the initiative and getting creative.... would love to see a pic of yours if you have a chance to snap one!

      (Whew! I've written so much I feel like I've presented a 'mini-conference session' in my head! Lol ;)

  4. As someone who lost a dear friend at 27 to leukemia, I am incredibly grateful for your donation. I encourage anyone reading your blog to enroll in Be the Match. I’ve been in the registry for 23 years and I have never been needed; however, you just never know. There is nothing more generous than offering someone another chance at life!


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    2. Amen! And I want to say how much I appreciate Deanna's encouraging me to post about my experience here on her blog, as it really is the perfect place to reach the greatest number of awesome people!!

  5. I just wanted to say THANK YOU! I have 12 RTI tier 2 & 3 kinders in my class. We have struggled ALL year trying to learn the letters and sounds with our county's curriculum. During the winter break I finally said "Enough!" and went searching for some other way for my "other" learners to be able to understand the letter sounds. I decided to purchase the vowel pack and downloaded the sampler. I printed them and introduced them. I added the Better Alphabet song to my morning calendar routine. I can not begin to tell you how amazed I am in the number of letters and sounds my kids have picked up in the past 4 weeks! They have learned more letters and sounds this past month than they had learned all year! I plan on purchasing the whole program this week and will never look back! Even my teacher-friend next door to me is starting to use it in her class because she saw such a difference in the kids she is tutoring from my class. Thanks again!


    1. Now that's what I love to hear!!! I can't tell you how much convincing it takes for some of my fellow K teachers to believe how easy (and quick!) teaching the individual letters and sounds can be!! Especially when simultaneously being able to share the "secrets" about why so many of them aren't "doing what they should!" Just wait until you start throwing in the "Secrets!" It will change the game of what you're used to with K entirely!!!

      I hope you'll post again and share your experiences... I would love to hear them!!

  6. I signed up with Be the Match a few years ago. Our local news just did a story on a man suffering from leukemia who is looking for a match. So far they haven't had any luck. They have even looked internationally. So, it must feel amazing to play a part in helping to save someone else's life! What a blessing!


    1. It is heartbreaking how many people, including babies and very young children aren't able to locate an acceptable donor in time, not to mention the pain and suffering they must endure while waiting. Even those who get the transplant must remain hospitalized for a year with little to no contact with anyone due to the need for a completely sterile environment while their new immune system is taking hold... and that's assuming that the transplant was successful. Those suffering and their families are desperate, as we all would be in that situation, especially if it were our spouse or children whose lives were at stake.

      It's wonderful that you've put yourself out there and joined the registry, regardless of whether your ever needed, at least you know that no one will ever die because you "weren't" there... and how awesome that thought is!

      Strangely enough, though, the predominant perspective is "I would only do if it for a family member, but I don't think I could go through that for a complete stranger." Although I respect anyone's right to feel this way, I have no ability to even begin to understand it.

  7. Katie...keep posting! And thank you for responding to the comments and questions of others. I love reading your responses and ideas. I have used the secret stories with several different grade levels. They really encourage student engagement.
  8. Thanks so much, Kim! I'm so glad to hear it!!
  9. I use Secret Stories with my deaf and hard of hearing students. We all love it. They get so excited when I pull them close, look around to make sure no one else is "eavesdropping" and then share the secret with them. After they know the secret, I encourage them to share the secret with each other as often as they can. It makes for some fun review. Thanks ever so much.


    1. Dear Deb,
      I am so happy to know that the Secret Stories is being used with your deaf students, as I've had many questions regarding use with the hearing impaired and always feel somewhat limited in connecting fully with teachers of learners with such exceptionalities. I would love to ask you a couple of questions, based on your experience with use, etc... when you have the time. If you could email me at that would be great, and thanks so much! 

  10. Thanks for sharing and providing an arsenal of "tricks" to help make learning more "fun". I adore the research and data to back up and fully explain the "back door" tips. I have shared your vlogs and book with all of my collegues! LOVE, Love, love your secrets!!! :)


    1. Dear Lisa,
      You're very welcome, and I hope to share much more in the coming weeks/ months and likewise, I would love to hear more from you and your colleagues as you move forward with them as well!
      Thanks so much for the kind comment and for sharing the Secrets!

  11. I saw Katie two years ago at the Virginia State Reading Association Conference and have been a convert ever since. :-)


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    2. That's awesome! And it's actually my goal every time I present at conference!!I
      It can be sooooooo hard sometimes to convince teachers to just 'let go' of the norm and try something new, and even though it makes perfect sense, it's still a 180-degree turnaround from what they're used to!
      I think that's why I get so riled-up in my sessions,. There's just so much to share and so little time when it comes to thinking (and teaching!) OUTSIDE the box in reading and writing!

  12. I love these! I tried the short vowel run today and I also tried the oral blends. They did well and didn't want to stop. :) Thank you for some great ideas!


    1. That's great! And if you REALLY want a challenge.... try the "Letter Run" ( BACKWARDS (no, I'm not kidding) or change the tune to "Happy Birthday" .....or if you really want to raise the bar, switch from 'long' vowel sounds to 'short' and then back again intermittently all the way through the exercise, and then reverse the entire process and do it again BACKWARDS!! many 'out-of-the-box' possibilities!
      Enjoy them ALL :)

  13. My kinders love your secret stories and I can't believe how quickly they have picked up on them or how much their reading and spelling has improved. I love how even my ELL and Intensive Needs Students have picked up on them and are using them. I have a little guy who has "th" in his name. He has severe speech problems that make it hard for him to process language and verbally express himself. The other day he looked at his name and said "oh, they shouldn't be together because they stick out their tongues and say /th/! I think I have had him tell everyone and anyone who will listen, from his speech teacher to the secretary!


    1. LoL! And that's why any concern regarding the developmental appropriateness of providing early learners the 'WHOLE' code right from the start becomes a mute point when doing so by simply sharing "Secrets!"

      The kids are in charge of their own access to these skills... each naturally applying them as they are able to identify a meaningful purpose!

      From the sounds of it, you are off to the perfect start, so don't stop!! Continuously be on the look-out for opportunities throughout the day to share or revisit a "SECRET"....anytime, anywhere, and for ANY purpose!!!
      Just keep' em coming :)

      And thanks so much for sharing!
    2. Thank you for the encouragement. My kids actually found a secret on their own today. We were researching bears (after reading Goldilocks and the 3 Bears we wanted to know more about real bears). We had just read the sentence "Bears climb trees." when a very intense conversation broke out between several students. When I asked what was wrong, they were excitedly pointed out that the "b" in climb must be a secret because you can't hear it. We of course had to find more words that ended in -mb.

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  15. I just spent my precious Saturday morning watching the entire video on The Secret Stories of your presentation at the Title 1 Conference. Best way to drink a cup of coffee and welcome the day. Amazing amount of information that you gave us. And you never loose your train of thought. I am a teacher but I am more focused on helping on how I can help my own child learn. She was born a twin with twin to twin transfusion syndrome. Very little research exist about kids with this after they survive birth but I know my child's brain has some huge strengths to build on but yet some very splintered other areas. I hope to win this packet because I can't afford it right now but since that's always a luck shot I'll be back to learn some more.
  16. Dear Hannah,
    Please email me at


  1. I can't wait to see the Alphabet Train that you are creating! I purchased the blends activities during the sale this week.

  2. This reminds me a lot of Phonics Dance chants that I used in my classroom, but you have a lot more tricks and tips (like using the arm to signal for different sounds and really coming up with a story behind why ph says "f". I love it! I plan on using these with my 4 year old who already knows letter sounds and is ready for an extra challenge!